At a time when college enrollment is declining, one college is seeing an uptick in enrollment. Western Governors University, a nonprofit, private and completely online university based in Utah, reported enrollment growth, higher retention rates and record-setting monthly graduations during the pandemic.
The university also prioritizes equitable access for populations historically not well served by higher education: 69 percent of WGU students come from at least one underserved population.
EdTech: Focus on Higher Education spoke to David Morales, CIO and senior vice president of technology at WGU, who describes how the university supports a fully online learning environment, how it uses technology to get to know students and what WGU plans for the future.
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EDTECH: As a fully online university, how did the pandemic impact your operations?
MORALES: It helped us fine-tune our operations. Before the pandemic, we would see a change in flow of traffic to our sites — that’s our student portals, anything that enables access for our students. Now, we see higher and more constant traffic throughout the day.
With our model, students don’t have to be sitting in front of a professor to learn. They consume material on their own time, have mentors and instructors that can help them at any time, and can take assessments whenever they’re ready.
We are always looking to bring more personalization to this academic path. Monitoring the web traffic helps us better understand how students are consuming our services so we can offer better alternatives. We’re also working on using AI to be more proactive and to respond to our students even before they think they need our help.
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EDTECH: Do you have any new tools or projects in the works to support students?
MORALES: WGU just started a new open-source project, releasing the code for the Open Skills Management Tool (OSMT), which is a free instrument to facilitate the production of Rich Skill Descriptor-based opens skills libraries. In short, it helps to create a common skills language by creating, managing and organizing skills-related data. Organizations using OSMT may create, access and share dynamic skills demand data, accelerating the development of skills-based education and more work-relevant credentials and leading to the implementation of more fair and equitable hiring practices.
Open-source projects are extremely important for education, as they make skills data accessible, usable and shareable to any organization through open web standards. We are going to start more open-source projects so other universities and employers can take advantage of them.
EDTECH: How does the university use technology to support students from traditionally underserved communities?
MORALES: The technology doesn’t necessarily make the distinction of what community you’re coming from; the actual access to that technology is what makes the big difference. WGU is constantly working to help state governments bring technology to the masses, to areas where access may be restricted. Through a partnership with the National Governors Association, we are addressing the future of work and education, building best practices in state policies that will result in greater access to digital skill development, broadband access and workforce technologies.
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We also use data analytics and personalization to better understand how to assist students from different backgrounds. We want to better understand how to support them when they go through things like natural disasters or family events. It’s about their time, their personal journey. We are truly focused on helping bring access to education to everyone.
We try to learn from our students as much as we can, not only from their transcripts but also from how they are consuming our services.”
CIO and Senior Vice President of Technology, Western Governors University
EDTECH: What advice can you offer other universities that may still be struggling with the long-term transition to the digital space?
MORALES: There’s not a silver bullet. It’s a whole ecosystem you need to put together. The main key is the interoperability of those systems. How do you bring them in and have them work together to better understand your students? How do they all talk to each other to serve your students better? We try to learn from our students as much as we can, not only from their transcripts but also from how they are consuming our services.
EDTECH: How do you think the pandemic will affect higher education overall?
MORALES: I see the need for a shift in mentality. I think the challenge will be how. As universities and K–12 start to migrate into online, I’ve seen some of the work they’re doing, and it’s fantastic. It will be important to understand whether it should be through the same educational model or a different one.
Technology is no longer a limitation. Digital transformation is required.
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Photography by Skylar Nielsen